The 20th century has often been called the century of genocide, and the first of its genocidal horrors, at least in the Western world, was the Armenian genocide of 1915. Carried out by the Turkish Government and its allies among the local populations of northeastern and central Turkey against its own citizens, it anticipated many of the enormities made familiar to the world in the Nazi genocide of the Jews a quarter of a century later. In some respects, the Armenian genocide provides an archetype for most subsequent state-sponsored mass killings down to Pol Pot and beyond.
The Armenian genocide originated among the ultra-nationalist extremists of the Committee for Union and Progress (the CUP), also known as the Ittihad (Union), or, more popularly, the "Young Turks", who had seized power in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Originally a broadly based modernising movement, its Turkish majority became ever more committed to extreme Turkish nationalism, entailing the elimination of most Armenians and Greeks from the Turkish economy. Their extremism was accentuated by the progressive loss of territory suffered by Turkey in the Balkans and elsewhere up until 1914. In 1915, during the First World War, extremists within the CUP took the smokescreen provided by the war as their opportunity to eliminate most of the Armenians in Anatolian Turkey. At least 600,000 Armenians perished - other estimates are far higher - often in ways and circumstances that directly anticipated the Nazi Holocaust.
Many thousands were deported in sealed boxcars to remote desert areas; many were machine-gunned in pits at the edge of towns. For one of the first times in modern Western history, this slaughter spared no one, not even women, children and the elderly, who are normally protected to a certain extent in wartime. (On the other hand, conversion to Islam spared the lives of some, while many Armenian women wound up as Islamified wives or concubines of Turks.) This harrowing story has attracted a growing literature in the burgeoning and controversial field of "genocide studies", but Peter Balakian's work is perhaps the first general account of the Armenian genocide intended for a literate mass audience; it is clearly meant to parallel the many popular accounts of the Holocaust, regularly drawing analogies with the Nazi genocide.
Among its many merits are a full discussion of the appalling persecutions endured by the Armenians in the decades before 1914, and of the not-inconsiderable efforts of the Western democracies, particularly the US, to publicise their fate and relieve their suffering. This work is likely to become the best-known book on the Armenian genocide. Balakian, professor of humanities at Colgate University in New York state, is one of a growing number of historians of Armenian descent who have assessed and publicised the tragedy of their people. The work includes harrowing photographs of the 1915 genocide that beggar belief.
Granted all of this, one must also point out that much about the Armenian genocide of 1915, as diabolical as it obviously was, can be interpreted in a somewhat different light compared with the sequence of events typically set out in recent accounts of this event. First, it seems clear that there was no pre-existing plan among Turkish leaders to exterminate the Armenians, as is now frequently suggested by many scholars. The last Ottoman Parliament, elected in 1914 just before the outbreak of the war, saw 14 Armenians elected among its 259 members, exactly the same number as in the previous Parliament, elected in 1908. Early in 1914, both the Armenian and Greek communities in Turkey - the Greeks also being targeted by Turkish extremists - carried out extensive and successful negotiations aimed at guaranteeing their existing percentages in future Ottoman parliaments. At this stage, a number of Armenians were major figures in the CUP movement, for instance Bedros Halacian, the public works minister. The contrast between this and the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany, ostracised from day one, is self-evident.
It was also plainly the case that Turkey did not start the First World War and could not have foreseen the course of catastrophic war declarations and mobilisations that unfolded in mid-1914. Indeed, Turkey remained neutral for the first three months of the conflict, declaring war only on October 19, 1914. In fact, most Turkish elite opinion was originally pro-British rather than pro-German, with Britain traditionally seen as the Ottoman Empire's protector, and arguably only the extraordinarily inept handling of the situation by the British Government - something for which it has received insufficient criticism - prevented Turkey from joining the Allies rather than the Central Powers, with profound consequences.
From October 1914, however, Turkey found itself at war with Russia.
Turkey's nationalist extremists saw its Christian Armenian minority as likely to be a subversive force working for Russia. Turkey then proceeded to invade the Russian Caucasus, with disastrous results, leading, in late November 1914, to a Russian counter-invasion of northeastern Anatolia, which resulted in its seizure of much of the area. Many Armenians supported the Russian drive against the hated Turks. That Russia had successfully invaded northeastern Turkey in 1914-15 is obfuscated and camouflaged in the most recent accounts of the Armenian genocide.
It was at this point, in the spring of 1915, that the CUP Government, now dominated by extremists, decided forcibly to transfer its Armenian population in northeastern Anatolia to the southern part of Turkey. This forcible transfer was carried out with the utmost brutality and inhumanity, and certainly included the deliberate murder of tens of thousands of Armenians, by the nationalist extremists who controlled the Turkish Government as well as their henchmen among anti-Christian Muslim fundamentalists, Kurds and criminals recruited especially to carry out the transfers as brutally as possible.
The genocide occurred when the very existence of Turkey was certainly threatened by its enemies, creating a mood of panic where murderous fanaticism became the order of the day. While the parallels with the Holocaust are clear, there were obvious differences as well: most killings by the Nazis occurred in Poland and Russia, which Germany had invaded largely for ideological reasons, the persecution of the Jews being at the very core of Hitler's world-view. In contrast, Turkey inflicted slaughter on its own people while being invaded.
It is also no coincidence that the Armenian genocide occurred during the First World War. The profoundly destructive effects of that conflict led to the triumph of extremist, genocidal ideologies whose impact was arguably not made good until the fall of Communism 75 years later.
William D. Rubinstein is professor of history, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
The Burning Tigris: A History of the Armenian Genocide
Author - Peter Balakian
Publisher - Heinemann
Pages - 473
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 434 00816 8